I was thrilled when I learned several months ago that Fredericksburg, Virginia had won a spot on Susanna Kearsley’s whirlwind tour for The Firebird. It was wonderful to have a chance to see her, and I really enjoyed having a chance to hear about her research, her writing process, and just some of the fun stories she had to tell. Prior to the event, Susanna had asked me if I would lead a Q&A session, and I very happily agreed. There was a good crowd at the local library, with people of all ages filling the room.
If you’ve not read Kearsley’s books before, they’re reminiscent of books by Mary Stewart or Barbara Michaels and I’ve seen them referred to as “modern gothics.” I find that I preferred the description she told us her husband gave them. Apparently, he thinks they are somewhat like old Alfred Hitchcock films in that there’s some mystery but not lots of blood and gore, there’s “something woo-woo” going on but it’s not just a ghost story, and then there’s a love story but it’s not the only thing going on.
Susanna Kearsley was a museum curator before she started writing, and this has had a great influence on her research. She told the audience that she likes to go back to original sources when researching her books so that she can see events and people as they and their contemporaries described them rather than only getting them through a historian’s particular filter. She spoke several times of how she felt it a duty to treat actual historical people with respect, and when she fills in the blanks of their stories, she wants to stay true to the sorts of things these people would have said or done.
With The Firebird, Kearsley spoke of her research into the Scottish Jacobite community in Russia. She discovered from her reading that some members of the Navy who would not swear loyalty to King George ended up going to work for Peter the Great in Russia. Peter had toured parts of Western Europe and after seeing countries there, he was determined to build a Russian navy, so he imported men from foreign navies. The Firebird has its roots in a real historical event. At the time of Peter’s sudden death, he had been in negotiations with those working to place James Stuart on the British throne in lieu of George I. When Peter died, the intrigue continued. It’s a fascinating story,and one I knew little about.
As I listened to her, it was hard to miss the fact that Kearsley has a lifelong love of history. Her family are history buffs and she mentioned family vacations where they would go in search of family history. I had to laugh when she shared with us that many of the family vacations involved going to places where they had had ancestors living, and then staying in hotels located conveniently close to the cemeteries.
In addition to mining primary sources for her research, anyone who’s checked out Kearsley’s website knows that she likes to travel to the actual settings of her books so that she can pick up the sensory details she needs for her stories. When describing her writing process, Kearsley said it was like watching a film in her head and then writing down what her characters and doing and saying there. She told the audience that when she went to Russia, she could envision whole scenes in the Strelka in St. Petersburg which she would not have thought of otherwise.
If you’ve not read, The Firebird, by the way, it is well worth picking up. The book is a companion to The Winter Sea but you can read the two independently of one another. This novel also has a tie-in to The Shadowy Horses as the hero in Firebird appeared as a child in that book. Kearsley informed the audience that she actually got the idea to put Robbie from The Shadowy Horses into Firebird as a hero because one of her readers had written asking when Robbie was going to get his own book, and she shared a Samuel Johnson quote that I really liked, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”
Readers familiar with Kearsley’s style know that she often uses time slip, or as she likes to call it “dual time periods.” She explained that she likes to use this device for a number of reasons. For starters, it allows the reader to learn the history along with the hero and heroine, eliminating the need for stilted “info dump” conversations. She also told the audience that it allows for a better story arc. For instance, if nothing much happened during a particular winter, rather than slog through it, she can simply switch focus back to the modern day, and then drop her characters into the middle of the action in the spring, when things are heating up again.
And, of course, since Kearsley writes with such a distinctive voice, I couldn’t resist asking who her influences were. She mentioned that Mary Stewart is one of her very favorite authors and she loves that Stewart heroines have jobs, friends, family, and great adventures. She also stated that Jan Cox Speas influences her. Speas wrote Scottish historicals that contain a lot of history. And Kearsley also mentioned the influence of Nevile Shute, whom she described as simply a great storyteller. Of his A Town Like Alice, she said it was “one of the most perfect novels ever written.” She also indicated that it was in his works she first encountered time slip.
Before we ended so that she could start her booksigning, we learned that Kearsley’s novels Mariana and The Shadowy Horses have been optioned for film. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll see one of her books on the big screen!
It was wonderful to see Susanna Kearsley again and if you happen to live in the vicinity of Houston or Vero Beach, Florida, you still have time to catch the tour. She’s a wonderful storyteller, so I highly recommend catching one of her appearances if you can.
– Lynn Spencer